1936 Negro League All-Star Game lineup, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Willard Brown.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
There wasn’t a lot of grass in my corner of the Bronx when I was growing up, so I learned to play baseball in the street – and I learned about baseball mainly from books.
Duane Decker’s novels about the fictional Blue Sox (published from 1947 to 1964) taught me about situational hitting and the double-play pivot. They also taught me about the challenges of melding individual and organizational goals for success. On the Blue Sox, one generation’s stars had to make room, more or less gracefully, for the next. I found those books in the library at P.S. 26.
I found other books at school, and at the nearby public library, that told me about many of baseball’s real-world stars, past and then-present. Of course there were the names everyone knows today: the Ruths, Cobbs, Gehrigs and Wagners. But there were many others that were not so well known to young baby boomers, let alone to today’s fans. I read about Tris Speaker, the Red Sox MVP outfielder who crushed 10 home runs in 1912 and led the team to a World Series title. And Rogers Hornsby, who set the modern-era batting average record when he hit .424 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1924. And even Walter “Rabbit” Maranville, a firebrand infielder who batted a pedestrian .258 with five National League teams over 23 seasons.
All of these legendary baseball players were white. Many of the best players during my youth were Black: Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays (though then near the end of his career) and Roberto Clemente, to name just a few. I found plenty to read about them too. I also read about Jackie Robinson and the Black players who followed after he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
I even learned a little bit about the great players that bald-faced racism kept out of the National League and the American League in the first half of the 20th century. I knew about Josh Gibson, the great Negro Leagues slugger known to white America (when it paid any attention) as “the Black Babe Ruth.” (Naturally, some of Gibson’s fans referred to Ruth as “the white Josh Gibson.”)
But most of the Negro League legends I heard about were the ones who eventually got their chance to play integrated baseball after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Larry Doby became the American League’s first Black player when he joined the Cleveland club in 1948. Others in that first cohort included Mays and Monte Irvin of the New York Giants, Roy Campanella of the Dodgers, Minnie Minoso of Cleveland (his best years followed with the Chicago White Sox), and Willard “Home Run” Brown of the St. Louis Browns. All of them save Minoso, plus Robinson and Leroy “Satchel” Paige (who joined Cleveland in 1948), are now enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. And all were among the first 20 Black players in what were then known as the major leagues.
Do the math. Of this first group, 35% have already been certified as having been among the very best players of all time. (The Cuban-born Minoso arguably deserves this recognition as well.) Integration and equality were not the same thing back then. Many would surely say not much has changed.
But something is about to change: baseball history. Last week the sport’s leaders announced that the top-level Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948 would now be considered part of Major League Baseball. This will trigger a wholesale rewriting of the sport’s record books. Some 3,400 players will newly become part of major league history. To baseball fans, this is like saying the Five Books of Moses are about to be reissued as an 11-volume Collector’s Edition.
Well then, amen! Although this recognition pales next to the injustice perpetrated against African American ballplayers and Black America, baseball truly cheated itself and generations of fans like me when it kept its best talents from competing with and against one another, other than in informal, off-season exhibitions played far from the Jim Crow South.
My parents’ generation never saw Walter “Buck” Leonard, a first baseman many compared to Yankee legend Lou Gehrig, play against Gehrig himself. (I had little chance to even read about him.) Fireballing pitcher “Smokey” Joe Williams never went head to head against Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson. Oscar Charleston may have been as good a hitter as Gehrig or Ted Williams, but he never got the chance to prove it.
I knew virtually nothing about these men. Or about James “Cool Papa” Bell, who just might have been the best of them all – at least, judging from the wisecracks of his peers. The Baseball Almanac quotes Josh Gibson as saying “Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could get out of bed, turn out the lights across the room and be back in bed under the covers before the lights went out.” Satchel Paige recalled, “Once he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.”
From the limited selection of these great old-time players offered to young me, Paige emerged as my favorite. He was past 40 when he got his chance to pitch for Cleveland, becoming the first former Negro League player to take the mound in the World Series. Some said he was closer to 50. (Paige refused to confirm his exact age.) He certainly was closer to 50 when he finished pitching with the Browns in 1953, the last year before they became the Baltimore Orioles. Paige then made a one-game curtain call with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, when he was almost 60, give or take. Broadcasters were still talking about it when I began tuning in a few years later.
One of my baseball books had a page full of Satchel Paige quotations. The one he is famous for is “Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you.” It stayed with me. But these days, I take one of his other tidbits very much to heart.
“Age is a case of mind over matter,” Paige reportedly said. “If you don't mind, it don’t matter.”
Truth matters, and history matters, especially to baseball fans. The big leagues would have been a lot bigger if they had always been open to everyone. It is past time to credit the major leaguers who never got to play with the American League and National League stars I read about as a boy, but who shone just as brightly on their own diamonds.